Jane MacKay has been an integral part of the Historic Clay District almost since the Artists in Residence Program began over 18 years ago in Hycroft China – moving to it’s current location at the Shaw Centre in 2009. She’s been a ceramic artist involved in the Medicine Hat community for over 25 years, and continues to advocate for Medalta as a volunteer. She is an excellent example of a ‘Lifelong Learner’, and we’re very excited that she agreed to write up how our programs began!
Ah, the Early Days!
Not long after the last major fire in Medalta Potteries, the feeling began to emerge that the entire Clay District was worth saving from future catastrophes. The seed was sown in the minds of local fans of clay for its possibilities, and the Friends of Medalta Society emerged. This brainchild of the likes of Dan Taylor, Dianne Finch, Jim Marshall, Mona Jesse and others, including Jack Forbes provided an ideal background to stimulate creative ceramic genius.
The Medalta site was really not safe enough to occupy for any activity, so the nearby Hycroft site, complete with broken windows, dust and a treasure trove of historical material, was chosen as a place to start a working experience to balance a “museum” approach.
Lost in the mist of time are days of sweeping pigeon droppings and dead birds from the Hycroft premises, cleaning David Jameison’s “Great Wall of China” a long, snake-like arrangement of Hycroft plates, or holding a meeting where the only chair supply was the molds used for toilet production years before. The building was like a time warp; potter’s aprons were hanging from nails near the workstation, shoes on the floor underneath – just as though the worker (probably a woman) had left for lunch and would return momentarily. And there were ghosts too – even the most skeptical of us walked cautiously in the nether regions of the pottery.
Naturally, early development was slow but steady and around the turn of the Century, a Committee was developed to entice ceramic artists of recognized accomplishment to join us in the old, dusty, leak facility, to rub shoulders, exchange ideas with and enjoy that amazing pastime, creating with Clay. The stars were in the right alignment that year as our long-time friend and mentor, Les Manning came along with Trudy Golley and Katrina Chador as our “Invited Visiting Artists”. Les, with his vast experience, talent and network became our inspiration and was the Volunteer Residency Director until the project matured into a full time situation with proper “Staff”. The program was open to paying participant artists of any suitable background.
Les managed to convince ceramic artists from coast to coast, the USA, Ireland, Great Britain, France and even Australia, that their lives would be enriched by trekking to Medicine Hat in the month of June, the only month when the weather is “iffy”. Picture, if you can, thoroughly professional full-time artists running around every morning with 5-gallon pails collecting the drips from the leaky not-yet-fixed roof – day after day! Then the following days scrounging for fans because the heat in Hycroft (and the humidity!) became unbearable! And of course we had to scrounge wheels (with help from the Medicine Hat College), provide some accommodation (again, with help from the College) and keep the few electric kilns we had in decent shape. Actually we had our own Mr. Fixit – Harvey Fix, helping anywhere and everywhere to keep the place in good shape. We managed Student Grants to entice returning ceramics students to be with us and that allowed some clay instruction later in the summer season. But potters are friendly people and we had pot luck dinners, trips to Red Rock Coulee, a mixer night with the local Potter’s Club, overnight wood firings and made many new friends who return to this day to share a memory and a laugh.
It was obvious that modern ceramic arts have a viable and essential place in our connection with the industrial history of Medicine Hat; the opening of the Shaw Centre and its ongoing success is proof of this legacy. It’s an enviable combination!